Existentialism and the Power of the Non-Existing in James Joyce’s “The Dead”

“The Dead”, originally written in 1907, is considered to be a novella written by James Joyce in his later years. It is the very last and longest story written included in his collection of stories later published in 1914 under the name Dubliners. The story opens up with the probable feast of Epiphany taking place on the 6th of January. Many characters are presented to the reader but the focus is mostly on Gabriel Conroy, the niece of the two hosts and husband of Gretta. During this traditional holiday toast, the participants seem to carry out what they usually do every year in their seemingly monotonous ways. This time, Gabriel is to give a speech but he is uncertain to whether to include the quotation of Browning in his utterance or not. Before their departure from the gathering, Gabriel sees Gretta standing on the stairs listening to a song by one the participants which arises in her the feeling of remembrance of a loved one that has died because of his love for her. This little incident creates a butterfly effect in the story because it provokes her further to make the confession of still being in love with the dead man to his husband Gabriel which, as a result, arises in him the case of self-realization. Similar to many of the subtexts of Joyce’s other short stories, “The Dead” is too considered to be a criticism of the existing political divisions in Ireland and its conflict with England. There’s more to this story though. Joyce brings forth the everyday question of what it is truly to exist and emphasizes how the body is only a temporary period of time for the soul to occupy.

The existential attitude is that of which one is confused in an absurdly organized world and tries to find meaning in it while actually being aware of the fact that individuals themselves are responsible in achieving this. In his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, a foreshadower of this theory, states that people proudly use the word “I” though an individuals’ body and intelligence is much greater than this for it performs the word “I”. At the end of the story, the epiphany of our neurotic protagonist is actually the awareness of being aware. Until the very end, like everybody else, Gabriel presents to us readers the paradox of being dead while actually breathing. When he thinks of the lost love of his wife, Michael Furey, he realizes the actual concept of existing: the importance of not living for years but the way of living. In comparison, though Michael Furey is dead, he is actually much more alive than Gabriel. He is a passionate man willing to catch his death in the rain for the sake of his love. He is the reflection of everything Gabriel is not and would have never been before his self-realization. Michael gives the word “death” a positive connotation actually though biblically he is the angel of death. In a sense, it is with the help of Michael that Gabriel gains his epiphany and it is only with the situation of Michael that Gabriel realizes the truth of living and existing. The fact that not only the reader but the protagonist himself becomes aware that Michael is more alive though dead is what makes this seemingly monotonous story lively.

Joyce goes further to unite these themes with the theme of immortality, regardless of either being alive or dead. He presents the body as only being a temporary period of time. What seems more important to him is the becoming immortal in the thoughts of others. For example, because Michael had been in realization of this situation and was once courageous enough to abandon his body for the sake of love is what makes him actually live forever in the thoughts of Gretta. He was very important to her at a certain time and though still not with her physically, he always forms a part of her. This is the actual power of the non-existing; they paradoxically exist with the immortality of thoughts, feelings and memories of others. Also, this is another realization that Gabriel stumbles upon. Though he emphasizes the separation between the dead and the past and the present moments of living in his speech during the ritual, he later realizes this incorrection. He realizes the fact that they both are same and equal in every way. In the last paragraph, he recalls a phrase he had heard earlier which had stated that “the snow was general all over Ireland.” At the very end of the story, he imagines the snow falling on the grave of Michael Furey. He sees it fall everywhere possible “upon all the living and the dead” (Joyce, Dubliners). Though at first he does wear galoshes in order to prevent this snow from reaching himself, he seems to be unable to prevent it actually now that he in realization of the whole situation. The story also, though left open ended, helps us to gain a sense of Gabriel experiencing an inward change which will most probably alter his view point of life in the remaining time period of his existence. After all, “The best way to cheat death is to create life”, which officially seems legit to our protagonist (Kennet Branagh, Frankenstein).

In accordance with Aristotle’s explanation of a perfect tragedy, I believe this story can be considered one. There’s a hamartia and anagrosis of the protagonist and the whole story seems to have accordance with his statement of how a tragedy shows rather than tells. The reader, with Gabriel, also concludes in a realization of his\her own. Such a monotonous subject is presented incredibly by Joyce. Also, the film adaptation of the story directed in 1987 is worth a watch.

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